An odd thing has happened in the wake of the disaster in London three weeks ago in which two commuter trains collided, killing as many as 100 — or was it only 30? — people. The tally has dropped sharply since the accident, as police find many of those who were initially presumed dead turning up alive and well. Some had simply gone about their business, not realizing they had ever been counted among the victims. Some, in a malign plot twist worthy of Charles Dickens, were reported missing by spouses eager to get their hands on jointly owned marital property. But a few enterprising passengers took the accident as an opportunity to act out a common fantasy.
Realizing they would be considered dead, they caught the next train to Heathrow airport and took off for foreign parts to start brand-new lives. Most of them apparently changed their minds and returned home after a few days. But some are presumably still out there, getting used to the fit of assumed identities, manufacturing personal histories, still imagining that they can actually escape what the 19th-century English novelist George Eliot once called “the small, hampering, threadlike pressures” of everyday life — less elegantly known as the ties that bind.
It is hard not to sympathize with the urge, or to admire the literal-minded “get-up-and-go” spirit of these absconders. Escape is, after all, the main motivating factor in much of what people do: take vacations, get divorced, change jobs, put the children in boarding school, even — in the most desperate cases — kill themselves.
Some make a profession out of it: actors, clowns, spies, anyone whose job requires them even temporarily to adopt another identity and shed their old selves like snakeskins. Criminals who think God created Latin American countries expressly for them constitute another category of decampers, from ex-Nazis and great train robbers (Mr. Ronnie Biggs) to tax cheats and plain old murderers (consider Britain’s Lord Lucan, who vanished 25 years ago after allegedly killing the family nanny and who was officially declared dead only this week). “I need to get away” is a mantra we all utter at one time or another; it’s just that we utter it with varying degrees of urgency.
In most options short of suicide, of course, we soon learn that escape is difficult to pull off. The main reason, for those who are not actors or miscreants but merely ordinary, everyday dreamers, is that the getaway is never more than partial. Just ask anyone returning from a holiday whether they feel they really “got away”; mostly, the answer will be a rueful no. The kids came along. The neighbors stayed in the same hotel. The office called every day. The bills piled up. Nor do fairy-tale rules apply to those major life changes that people define so hopefully as “starting over.” The new boss (or wife or city) usually proves just as demanding (or boring or inconvenient) as the old one. For fugitives, the difficulty is of a different order, though equally limiting: There is always someone trying to track them down.
The advantage of the London scenario was that it met both these difficulties. The quick-witted were not only able to effect a near-total escape, shaking off the whole oppressive package of families, jobs and financial obligations, but they had the bonus of knowing that no one would come looking for them. They must have felt as strangely exhilarated at that moment as Tom Sawyer did when he found himself at his own funeral.
Don’t waste energy envying them, however. Inspiring as the idea is, common sense tells us that the problems would have started kicking in as early as the ride to Heathrow. Quite apart from the difficulty of having no money, no credit, no job, no references and no friends, there would remain all the other sources of threadlike pressure that none of us can escape as long as we are alive and sentient — memory, conscience, IQ and temperament among them. And there is always the treacherous body. Even fugitives from the law, with their face lifts and surgically smoothed fingertips, cannot escape the fates encoded in their genes.
Another novelist, the American Anne Tyler, once spun a whole book out of this theme. A 40-year-old unappreciated wife and mother of three grown children impulsively walks out on her family at the beach, hitches a ride to another town, gets a job and sets up a new, untrammeled life for herself. Naturally, troubles crowd in on this pure new existence as messily as they had on the old, and a year and a half later she ends up right back where she started.
It would be nice to think things will turn out differently for the bold phantom victims of London, seizing their chance to start over. Unfortunately, we know better.
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